Post-tweedy academic types and the Terminally Online insist that the Internet has killed off the American impulse to engage in a collective media experience. However, this interpretation only holds water if you’re willing to ignore the 171.3 billion TV ad impressions the National Football League served up last year. The NFL is the monoculture—so much so that TV is now merely a delivery system for the league. Manufacturers may as well start slapping the Shield on the back of every TV set that’s bound for the U.S. market, giving the league’s star-spangled logo a place of understated prominence alongside the omnipresent UL Solutions sticker.
It’s the least they could do for the sport that accounts for nearly 10% of all live TV deliveries.
Despite the ongoing collapse of the pay-TV model and a steady decline in TV usage, the NFL’s hegemonic dominance over the domestic media market has shown no sign of faltering. If anything, the league has become even more spellbinding as TV staggers into its hard-candy-dispensing senescence, accounting for 82 of the 100 most-watched programs on TV in 2022. That’s up from the previous record of 75 notched during 2021, when NBC’s coverage of the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gobbled up 10 slots on the list.
According to the Nielsen ratings data (against which $83.3 billion in TV ads was bought and sold), the NFL last year racked up 19 of the 20 most-viewed broadcasts, ceding only the No. 7 spot to President Biden’s Ukraine-inflected State of the Union Address on March 1. As was the case in 2021, only six non-sports programs charted this time around, a roster that includes three other political/live news events, as well as the 95th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the slaphappy 94th Academy Awards. The nearest a scripted TV episode got to the upper echelons was Paramount Global’s multi-network simulcast of the Season 5 premiere of Yellowstone, which claimed the No. 132 entry with an average draw of 12.5 million live-plus-same-day viewers.
The gulf between the reach of the NFL and even the most popular scripted show is now so vast that even Arthur Fonzarelli wouldn’t be sufficiently bold/foolhardy to try to jump over it while astraddle his motorcycle. CBS’ FBI stands as TV’s most-watched entertainment program with an average draw of 7.21 million live-same-day viewers, but that pales in comparison with the numbers football puts up each week. The league’s top TV property, the national Sunday afternoon window shared by Fox and CBS, is currently averaging 25.8 million viewers, while linear deliveries for the primetime stalwart Sunday Night Football are just a hair under 19 million viewers.
(Discounting broadcasts that benefited from the steroidal inflation of a Super Bowl lead-in, the last time a scripted series found a toehold among the top 100 was in 2019, when the hour-long series finale of The Big Bang Theory averaged 18.5 million viewers.)
When not dwarfing the network sitcoms and dramas, the NFL also made short work of a good deal of big-ticket sporting events. In a year that featured a regularly scheduled Winter Olympics, the only feed from Beijing that cracked the list was NBC’s Feb. 13 broadcast, which aired immediately after Super Bowl LVI. Game 6 of the NBA Finals came up just shy of the mark (No. 108), while the highest-rated World Series outing ended up at No. 128.
Among the sporting events that shared the road with the NFL in 2022 were college football, the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, the FIFA World Cup and the 148th Kentucky Derby. Despite airing in the dry ratings gulch that is New Year’s Eve, ESPN’s coverage of the College Football Playoff semifinals nearly topped its year-ago Georgia-Alabama title tilt. An extraordinary Peach Bowl outing featuring Ohio State and Georgia edged Fox’s Argentina-France final by a slim margin, while the Run for the Roses closed out the year at No. 88.
If the NFL’s ratings-hogging ways now seem like old hat, it wasn’t ever thus. In 2018, the league accounted for 61 of the top 100 programs, giving up 15 slots to that year’s Winter Olympics, while previous years were flooded by scripted contributions and other football-free draws. Back in 2005, during ABC’s final season of Monday Night Football, the NFL’s lone primetime package was only the 12th most-watched show in prime, drawing roughly half of the 30.5 million viewers who plugged into American Idol every Tuesday and Wednesday evening. (That same year, MNF trailed Desperate Housewives by 6.17 million viewers per week. It was a different time. People used public payphones for things that didn’t involve crime, and AOL was still flooding our physical mailboxes with thrice-weekly startup disk offerings.)
With an average in-game unit cost of nearly $600,000 per 30-second spot, the NFL’s network partners are on course to surpass last season’s record haul of $4.33 billion in ad revenue. It should go without saying that nothing else on TV generates that volume of escarole, and the marketing deluge goes a long way toward justifying the league’s recent giga-billion-dollar rights extensions. That the NFL continues to put up these garish numbers when overall TV usage keeps Costanza-ing—at the end of the third quarter, subscriptions to the traditional pay-TV bundle dropped 10% to 62.2 million homes, bringing overall cable/satellite/telco-TV penetration down to just 50%—speaks to our collective fascination with the sport.
In other words, while far fewer people are watching linear television than they were just 10 years ago, the bulk of those who are still in thrall to the narcotic allure of the tube are watching the NFL. Televised football: It’s about as close to consensus as we’ll ever get.